The Sears Silvertone television glowed with indistinct grays, whites and blacks as the hunched little man in a stockbroker’s suit announced in his oddly clipped cadence, “Ladies and gentlemen,” then, swinging around stiffly toward stage left, “The Beatles!”
And, after that, nothing was ever the same.
The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964 — 50 years ago — was one of the most significant moments in a period of American history that produced more than its share of game-changers. The incredible influence that the lovable mop-tops from Liverpool — John, Paul, George and Ringo — would have on music, social behavior, popular culture and even politics can be traced to that single broadcast.
Americans tuned into the popular variety show in staggering numbers — 73.9 million viewers, or about 40 percent of the population, watched, making it the most-viewed event in television history to that point. As the Sullivan audience let loose with piercing screams (could that wail really have been created by a crowd of only 728?) and the band launched into All My Loving, a generation of soon-to-be Beatles fans watching at home saw its collective dreams unfold right before its eyes.
“When they came on, I just couldn’t take my eyes off. It was so different. It was just enthralling,” said Elaine McAfee Bender, who was 14 when she watched the broadcast at her grandmother’s house in Fort Worth. “Sitting there watching that, I just felt everything is different now. I decided right then, I’m a Beatles fan.”
Bender would go on to start a local Beatles fan club and read Beatles news on radio station KFJZ. She even got to meet the Fab Four in Houston. Eventually, she’d spend nearly a decade living in London.
For Ned James, a 13-year-old who spent his days hanging out at the Bruton family’s record shop in Fort Worth, the Beatles’ five-song set that Sunday evening on CBS sparked more than just a musical awakening.
The Beatles “made it possible to try anything you wanted to do,” he says now. “That’s what I gleaned from them. For a town like this, that broadcast was a breath of fresh air. … I think a big chunk of my individuality started there.”
Sullivan’s stamp of approval
Like Elaine and Ned, I was an impressionable kid in 1964, watching the Beatles on that Sears TV at my city cousin’s house.
The broadcast was the beginning of a cherished lifelong relationship with the band.
Through my teen years, I’d mark key moments by Beatles albums and songs: “That was just before Sgt. Pepper’s came out.” Or “that’s where I was when I heard I Am the Walrus for the first time.”
My fascination with the Beatles started a career path that led me to become an arts and music critic. (My first review was of a George Harrison concert in Memphis in 1974.)
Later, as a college professor, I’d use “the Fabs” as a teaching tool. In fact, I am moderating a panel this weekend at an academic conference called It Was 50 Years Ago Today!: An International Beatles Celebration at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona campus.
It is one of many celebrations of that seminal moment, the most elaborate of which is The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles, a two-hour tribute set for 7 p.m. Sunday on CBS. It airs 50 years to the hour after the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on that same network.
To fully understand the importance of that night, it’s necessary to understand how significant Sullivan’s show was in defining American popular culture. In many homes, watching Sullivan on Sundays was a ritual observed as religiously as attending church.
The program, which defined the term variety show by presenting a wild mix of singers, comedians, ballerinas, acrobats, jugglers and even circus acts in any given episode, was not in the business of nurturing new talent.
Most of the acts appearing had already established themselves. That was the case for Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Their songs were already hits when they appeared on the show. What Sullivan did was legitimize them with the public.
If they were good enough for Ed, they were good enough for America.
So when the Beatles were booked, they were already topping the charts and causing near-riots at concerts in England. And their singles were soaring here. But the broadcast would be the first time most Americans ever laid eyes on them.
The media world was very different then. We’d listened to their songs, and heard about their long hair, but only the earliest and most creative American fans had seen pictures of them. The Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Paar, had run footage on Jan. 3 of the band performing in England, but it was more like a newsreel clip, so it attracted little notice.
The Beatles — whose appearance was preceded by Sullivan reading a welcoming telegram from Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker — performed All My Loving, Till There Was You (from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man), She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There and I Want to Hold Your Hand.
The set was a showcase for the Beatles’ strategy. They could dazzle with freshly crafted pop songs, but they were also so eager to please that they were willing to do a show tune.
Although the Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show the next two Sundays and a total of nine times, the Feb. 9 broadcast was the only time they were seen live from Sullivan’s New York studio.
The context in which they appeared seems almost Fellini-esque today. They were sandwiched between impressionist Frank Gorshin, British music hall belter Tessie O’Shea, sleight-of-hand act Fred Kaps and a group of tumblers known as Wells and the Four Fays, among other entertainers.
There was even a future disciple on the show. Davy Jones, a cheerful kid with a cockney accent, sang I’d Do Anything from the Broadway hit Oliver! He was playing the Artful Dodger at the time, but years later he would become “the cute one” in the Monkees, a band created as an ersatz Beatles for an NBC television series.
Reaction to the Beatles’ Sullivan broadcast was intense on every front. Those who felt threatened by them responded with expected vitriol — even the suits and the show tune were not enough to appease them.
On the other hand, those wanting desperately to embrace them did so without reserve.
“I went to Monnig Junior High School. And the next day I went to sit down with my three best friends, and they were all like, ‘Did you see the Beatles?’ ” said Elaine McAfee Bender, a medical secretary and dance instructor in Crowley.
The excited teenagers decided to start a Beatles fan club.
“I read somewhere that Paul McCartney loved cheese,” said Bender, who pegged “the cute one” as her favorite Beatle early on. “So we decided to call ourselves the Cheese Forever Beatles Fan Club.”
The club eventually became a chartered branch of the official Beatles Fan Club, reaching almost 1,000 members. And before Bender was old enough to drive, she began appearing on radio station KFJZ to read the Beatles news.
For 13-year-old Ned James, the Beatles’ guitars are what hooked him.
“I think the thing that made them cool to me were the instruments. George playing a Gretsch guitar and Lennon playing a Rickenbacker. Of course, nobody had seen a Hofner bass. That was the coolest thing to me,” said James, now a commodities trader.
But in the era of the Ed Sullivan broadcast, he was hanging out at the Bruton family’s Record Town store absorbing everything he could about music and spending his allowance on 45-rpm records.
“The first thing I did [after the broadcast] was beg for an advance on my allowance so I could buy the album Meet the Beatles. Up to that point it had been a singles life for me.”
James eventually worked at Record Town and went on to manage his own store, a former Budget Tapes and Records location near TCU. These jobs allowed him to amass a huge LP collection.
“At one point, I had about 30,000 albums,” he said.
The real stars of his collection are a trio of albums that would make most Beatles collectors’ jaws drop. James owns three of the coveted “ butcher covers” — the U.S.-only Yesterday … And Today album whose cover depicts the Beatles in butcher’s coats holding slabs of raw meat and children’s dolls. (And you thought Lady Gaga’s meat dress was something new.)
Intended as a parody of pop art, the cover was issued and quickly withdrawn. They are as rare as hen’s teeth today and often sell for thousands of dollars.
The closest he ever came to meeting his idols was the rejection letter he received for a set of song lyrics he submitted to the Beatles’ label, Apple, which was signed by John and George.
“I’ve got to find the bloody thing,” James said.
Bender, however, did far better. She received an invitation to participate in a “meet and greet” with the Fabs when they played Houston in 1965.
“I was doing the Beatles news on KFJZ radio, and I was president of the fan club, so I had a couple of ways in,” Bender said. “I got an official [invitation] from London because I had so many members and they liked what I was doing.”
Bender survived a harrowing crowd scene on the airport tarmac before being ushered in to meet the group in a nondescript conference room.
“The first one in line was Paul. He was like, ‘Hi, I’m Paul,’ ” said Bender, laughing at the idea that the Beatles bassist felt the need to introduce himself.
“I’m sure I was blushing. I could feel that, and I was like, ‘Oh, I wish I could quit blushing,’ ” said Bender, who brought a Western-style shirt for each of the Fabs. “But Paul is one of those people who looks you right in the eye and puts you at ease when you are talking to him.”
And, like James, she feels the Beatles opened her eyes to what was possible for her in the world.
“That night on Ed Sullivan, my life changed,” she said. “It opened the doors to dance, interviewing, writing concert and CD reviews, and all the other things I have done with my life.
“I never stopped being a fan. It really did affect my life tremendously.”
What followed the Feb. 9, 1964, appearance was a seven-month period that may be the most rapid and blinding blitz in the history of popular entertainment in America, rivaled only by Elvis’ unbelievable rise to the throne in 1956. At one point, Beatles songs occupied the top five spots on the Billboard chart.
Beatlemania had taken hold, and for many of us, it has never completely let go.